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When 20,000 geeks in skinny jeans can't be wrong


WEB WIZARD: Event organiser Paddy Cosgrave at the Web Summit

WEB WIZARD: Event organiser Paddy Cosgrave at the Web Summit

WEB WIZARD: Event organiser Paddy Cosgrave at the Web Summit

Walking around Trinity graduate Paddy Cosgrave's wildly successful technology conference Web Summit, which brought 22,000 people to Dublin this week, was a lesson in futurology.

In just a couple of years it has become the premier showcase for the products and ideas that increasingly shape Western and global society. Here are the six key trends that dominated the agenda.

Virtual Reality

One of the biggest sources of buzz at the Web Summit was Oculus Rift, the Facebook-owned maker of sophisticated virtual reality headsets that look like something out of Blade Runner. Ironically so, since its product has the potential to derail the conferencing sector.

The product is aimed at gamers, to provide them with a totally immersive experience. The idea is that you put on the headset and experience a video game as if you were one of the characters. But its potential applications beyond gaming were the talk of the town at the RDS this week.

It has huge potential for business communication. Conference calls are old hat now, but businesses still rely on them for remote communication. The most sophisticated might use Skype, but that is a fairly old technology too by now.

With the Oculus headset and the right software, business people will be able to see, hear and maybe even smell the person on the other end of the line as if they were sitting next to each other at the boardroom table.

One Taiwanese start-up owner I spoke to predicted it could be used to host entire conferences.

"Most people travel, they get on their planes to go and have face-to- face communications… but if you throw on a pair of sunglasses and now you can have that same conversation with people all around the world, everybody, face-to-face, looking at each other. That's really transformative," said Oculus chief executive Brendan Iribe, one of Web Summit's most talked-about attendees.

The technology is also being pitched as a treatment for people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Sufferers can learn how to cope with the event that traumatised them by recreating it and immersing themselves in it using the Oculus Rift headset in a safe environment, Iribe said.

This may all happen sooner than we think. Oculus has announced it will bring out a consumer version of the headset within months, not years.

The company's biggest concern now is that a rival will wade into the market and rush something out before the relatively smaller Oculus has time to. Iribe has implored its rivals to not rush out something imperfect and "poison the well."

We think his comments have less to do with worrying about standards for consumers, and more about holding on to his shaky lead in what looks likely to be the most exciting market of 2015.

Print Your Own Food

3D printing has been around for a while, but this year it really dominated the airwaves. The Web Summit's prestigious ESB Spark of Genius award - a recognition of the most promising start-up - went to a Dublin-based 3D printing business. Love & Robots won €25,000 for its efforts, though that is relatively small fry for a company that has raised about €1m in funding to date.

Set up in 2012, it uses high-precision 3D printing to create custom objects in four categories: smartphone cases, jewellery, coasters and clocks. It prints in a variety of unusual materials, including silver and gold. Readers may know it better as FabAllThings, its name before a recent rebrand.

Then there's Natural Machines. This Spanish company makes Foodini - billed as the world's first 3D food printer kitchen appliance.

After selecting their recipe, the user prepares and loads in fresh ingredients, and Foodini does the rest - for everything from breadsticks and cookies to chocolate mousse and ravioli.

It is all about health, according to Foodini, because it allows people to make home versions of pre-packaged, processed snacks very easily.

Chef Darina Allen even had a taste of one of its creations at the Web Summit (her Ballymaloe brand was heavily involved in preparing lunch for 20,000 people) and gave her approval.

The US Army is also making progress marrying food with 3D printing. The US Department of Defence has just approved research funding for machines that will print out personalised equivalents of protein bars, depending on the nutritional needs of the subject.

Online Branding

One of the very first industries to conquer the internet was travel. But those brave few of us who booked our holidays from Booking.com eight years ago placed their trust in the airline that was flying them and the hotel that was hosting them, rather than the website they booked through.

That has changed completely, according to Oisin Hanrahan, one of the country's most successful entrepreneurs. The Trinity graduate and Harvard MBA dropout's app and website Handy allows consumers to book cleaners online.

It is active in 25 cities across the US and has raised about $45m investment so far.

"Today people place their trust in the online brand they book through rather than the service provider, whether you are using Uber or Handy or Amazon or whatever. But companies haven't caught up to the fact yet. Building trust around your online brand, whatever service you provide, is one of the single most important things any start-up can do."

Connecting Everything

'The internet of things' is an often used and little understood phrase. What it means is that the objects we use daily are increasingly going to be connected to the internet, able to feed us information about usage patterns and take direction from users. Everything from our cars to our cookers will be hooked up to the net.

Many of the companies at the forefront of this revolution were front and centre at the Web Summit. Chief amongst them was Nest, a company bought by Google for €3bn last year, whose device allows users to monitor and control their heating remotely.

It has just announced a deal with Electric Ireland to offer free Nest thermostats to customers who sign up for two-year contracts with the electricity provider. Nest founder Tony Fadell revealed the deal on day two of the summit. Fadell is known as the godfather of the iPod, since he played a core role in creating the device during a 10-year career at Apple.

There's also web-connected lightbulb, Lifx. It started life as a Kickstarter project, raising more than €1m on the crowdfunding site. Lifx allows owners to remotely control their lights using an app on their smartphone. You can change its colour, or turn the light on and off while out of the house for security purposes. Company marketer Simon Walker told an impressed Web Summit audience that a Lifx lightbulb has more computational power than the first Apple Mac.

Another company leading the way is Intel, which recently embarked on a plan to make Dublin the most densely sensored city in the world. It is placing hundreds of sensors around the city to monitor environmental data, in particular noise, air quality and traffic patterns. The data collected has obvious uses for city planners, but is also being made available to the public online. People cycling to work or exercising during the day will be able to find the most environmentally friendly routes.

The Drones Are Coming

Once confined to hobbyists and the military, drones are going mainstream. Commercial use of unmanned flying robots is set to explode, summiters heard, accompanied by the buzz of a drone flying overhead.

Their potential applications range from agriculture and disaster response to mapping and crowd safety. Amazon is already using drones to deliver goods to difficult-to-reach locations, while attendees at the Electric Picnic will have spotted a few overhead, taking photos of the festival.

But few new technologies raise as many concerns, infringement of privacy and the threat of surveillance chief amongst them.

As panellist Jay Bregman said, "Let's not talk about it being a killer app. That has negative connotations." He has just quit as CEO of wildly successful taxi app Hailo (he remains the taxi company's largest shareholder) to build a new business focused on overcoming regulatory hurdles for drones.

Don't Dream It, Stream It

The future of music very clearly lies in streaming, rather than owning. Online streaming giant Spotify saw its revenues eclipse iTunes in Europe for the very first time in its most recent quarter. That's according to Kobalt, a firm that helps collect royalties on behalf of many artists, including Maroon 5, Dave Grohl and Bob Dylan.

Kobalt CEO Willart Ahdritz, speaking last week, called it a "milestone for streaming". Its arrival is right on schedule: in 2012, Napster founder and Silicon Valley investor Sean Parker predicted that income from Spotify streaming would overtake that of iTunes in two years.

Interestingly, music streaming has been led by Europe, not the US. Spotify is a Swedish company, only founded in 2008.

Even without comparisons to Spotify, things are not looking good for iTunes; sales at Apple's flagship music platform are down about 13pc this year, according to the Wall Street Journal. Its decline shows that even the biggest, richest companies get it wrong sometimes. Apple is now rushing to incorporate some kind of streaming product into iTunes.

The same model applies to broadcasting, too. Netflix's rapid European growth shocked the market into action, and now domestic broadcasters are piling into streaming services. RTE regularly announces improvements to its online player and is understood to be plotting a streaming version of Saorview.

Sunday Indo Business